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How Fez Is Keeping Traditional Architecture and Craftsmanship Alive

By Rebecca Dalzell

10.22.19

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Dar Belmatti, a restored 19th-century house, is now an information center on Place Lalla Yeddouna.

Courtesy of ADER-Fès

Dar Belmatti, a restored 19th-century house, is now an information center on Place Lalla Yeddouna.

In the ancient medina, a new development is putting Morocco’s artisans front and center.

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Fez, Morocco, is home to some of the finest design and architecture in the world, but most of it is hidden from the street. It’s behind the imposing doors of madrassas and riads, where carved cedar encompasses courtyards and ceramic mosaics pop like a kaleidoscope. Yet in the ancient medina east of the Quaraouiyine Mosque, a new complex dubbed Place Lalla Yeddouna puts craftsmanship in full view in the once dilapidated neighborhood. Colorful tiles cover the sides of new buildings along the Bou Khrarab River, their fractal geometric designs riffing on traditional zellige patterns. In a city where donkeys still roam the mazelike streets, it’s a bold modern statement that seems to say: Our work deserves to be seen.

In the next year or so, thanks to foreign investment and clean, new workspaces, artisans will move their workshops here and sell wares in an adjacent shop. A hotel and restaurant are also in the works for the development. “Part of the mission of this project is to put Fez on the map,” says Michel Mossessian, the French architect who designed the new buildings. Squalid copper workshops previously occupied the site; the polluted river was hardly visible under heaps of trash. Now it’s all cleaned up, with boxes of geraniums hanging along scrubbed waterside paths. “Our goal was to make a public space where both inhabitants and visitors could be happy,” he says. “We wanted to create something that feels joyful inside.”

A copper artisan works at Chemmaine Fonduk.

Making a place for enterprising artisans

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Place Lalla Yeddouna is the centerpiece of an ambitious plan to restore the medina, train workers in traditional crafts, and support local artisans. With $84 million in grant funds from the U.S. government meant to help local governments reduce poverty through economic growth, local conservation agency ADER-Fès has rehabilitated 27 monuments, some dating to the 11th century, in the past decade. They include the famous tanneries in the heart of the city, Islamic schools (madrassas), and elegant houses like Dar Belmatti, which just reopened as an information center on Place Lalla Yeddouna. The newly restored Royal Medina Spa is one of the few historic hammams in Fez open to the public, offering rhassoul clay face masks and traditional massages. ADER-Fès also restores the more modest sites that make up the fabric of the city: bridges, paving stones in the souks, and traders’ inns called fonduks. “The medina’s importance resides not only in the prestigious monuments,” says Fouad Serrhini, director general of ADER-Fès. “Even a little fountain in the corner of the street has intrinsic value, because it tells a story.”

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That perspective makes Morocco an outlier among developing countries, where historic preservation tends to be treated as a luxury. It’s hard to justify spending money on old buildings when people are destitute, but conservation and poverty reduction can go hand in hand. The Moroccan government recognizes that restoring the medina, and promoting craftsmanship, is a smart investment that boosts tourism and the local economy. A UNESCO World Heritage city, Fez is certainly worth a visit longer than the typical two-day stay, if only to admire its historic buildings.

“The work in Fez is equal in inventiveness, complexity, delicateness of craft as anything in the Islamic world—including the Alhambra,” says Stanley Hallet, an Islamic architecture scholar and expert guide with Architectural Adventures in Morocco. “It’s extraordinary how craftsmen could turn simple materials like wood and plaster into such elegant work.” 

For example, at the Madrassa Bou Inania, 14th-century artisans chiseled precise geometric designs into tiles, cut cedar into fine lattice screens, and carved swirling Arabic calligraphy to decorate entire rooms. They passed their skills on through generations; today, the techniques are still employed in Fez.

Weaving is the focus at Fonduk Staounyine, which opened in March 2019.

The work of refurbishment

For its restoration projects, ADER-Fès only works with contractors who use traditional building methods. Fifty craftsmen may work on a single fonduk, including young people who learn the skills onsite; many apprentices go on to start their own companies. The buildings are often in terrible shape, requiring reconstruction with new materials, but the basic elements remain the same: cedar, plaster, handmade bricks, and chisels. The modern workshops at Place Lalla Yeddouna were constructed the same way. (“These guys can build,” says Mossessian.)

Once restored, the fonduks become craft marketplaces, offering discounted rents to vetted Moroccan artisans. In the souks—the medina’s many street markets—vendors sometimes hawk lamps or shoes made in China, but the fonduks only sell authentic local goods. Marked with a sign reading “Fanadiq Fes,” each has a different specialty. Fonduk Staounyine, just northeast of the Quaraouiyine Mosque, opened in March and is dedicated to weaving. Last year, the 13th-century Chemmaine Fonduk nearby began selling rare handicrafts, like wooden hammam buckets and gilded leather.

The Bou Khrarab River runs near Place Lalla Yeddouna.

A tentative timeline

The initiative is a work in progress and bureaucracy is slow. When it opened two years ago, Fonduk Barka focused solely on female artisans, but few shoppers came and the women moved out. ADER-Fès hopes that new marketing strategies will bring craftswomen back and attract more visitors.

The workshops in Mossessian’s new buildings at Place Lalla Yeddouna—which are separate from the fonduks—were expected to open by now, but with multiple agencies involved, craftsmen have yet to move in. ADER-Fès optimistically estimates they will start coming in early 2020.

Different colored tiles help illiterate craftsmen navigate the new workshops on Place Lalla Yeddouna.

Whatever the pace of change, the medina’s improvements are remarkable. The Dar Belmatti information center and the fonduks display photos of what the buildings used to look like: walls crumbling, railings destroyed, overgrown courtyards. Now they’re all rich cedar latticework and spotless plaster columns. The three-story atrium at Fonduk Staounyine looks as it might have 600 years ago—except there’s a retractable roof and elevator, some of the contemporary improvements built into each restoration. The entire initiative, really, is an attempt to modernize Fez by capitalizing on its distinctive assets. Paradoxically, the emphasis on conservation, tradition, and authenticity positions this ancient city to thrive in the 21st century. 

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